Small Biz Advice: When Your Staff Doesn’t Respect You



Holly Howard runs Ask Holly How, a small business consulting company based out of Williamsburg, Brooklyn that works with a wide variety of businesses from restaurants to retail to art studios and pretty much everything in between. Her clients report increased income and profit, decreased expenses and a significantly better quality of life. Holly heads up the Small Business Book Club at McNally Jackson Books.

Email her to ask a question for the next Ask Holly How

Dear Holly,
I run a small, educational services company that works with grade school children. I employ a staff of five, and that feels like about all I can handle. I always feel drained from managing them, and I constantly feel like my staff is interrupting me when I’m talking to them. What can I do to teach my employees to stop cutting me off and start listening to me when I speak? I feel like they are totally disrespectful, and I’m tired of their behavior. Something needs to change or I will burn out, I know that. Please help me.


Sick of My Staff

Dear Sick,
Sounds like a super stressful problem. Nobody likes to feel disrespected, and I’m sure it’s incredibly frustrating to have your staff constantly cutting you off. But here’s the thing. This sounds to me like a situation you created yourself and one that you are solely responsible for changing.

Now, I’m sure you’re saying to yourself, why is this my fault? They’re the ones who are acting inappropriately, right? But, as the leader, only you can set the company culture and if this is how your staff is behaving, it’s because they’re following an example and they know they can get away with it.

Now, I could write a whole separate column about proper hiring and training, but let’s deal with your situation as it is currently. You’ve got staff that’s been working with you for a while (probably at least since the start of the school year) and you want to change their behavior.

Company culture always starts at the top and trickles down throughout the company, even a small company. So if your staff is being disrespectful, it’s hard for me to believe that you are treating them all with the respect they deserve. Stop and ask yourself whether or not you are taking time to listen to your staff when they come to you, or maybe you’re being a bit too commanding and controlling. Does this resonate with you? Is it possible that they are feeling defensive because of the tone you set?

Listening is one of the most important skills in leadership. We tend to think that because we are in charge, everyone should do what we say. And, though that is true to a certain degree, employees always feel more invested and more enthusiastic about building your vision when they feel like they have a voice, and that it has been heard.

A strong leader is not someone who is commanding and controlling. A strong leader knows how to make staff feel like their contributions matter. I guarantee if you take more time to listen to their input, it will produce the respect you so desperately want from your staff. What’s more, leading by example creates credibility when you’re trying to change behavior.

Once you’ve polished your leadership skills and are showing your staff more respect, make sure that you establish a culture where disrespectful behavior is not tolerated. If you haven’t taken the time to make the expectations and culture clear to your staff, then you really can’t complain when nobody behaves the way you want. The good news is that it’s never too late to get started; it’s just more challenging to turn things around rather than starting off on the right foot. This means that you’ll have to really focus on accountability within your company. This can be a really challenging transition for leaders to make. You must hold your staff, and yourself, accountable when someone acts out of line with the established culture. And remember, the key to accountability is to not make it personal. Stay focused on what’s best for the business, not on someone’s shortcomings.

If you spend time developing your leadership skills, like listening and accountability, and you take the time to establish and enforce a culture of respect, I guarantee you won’t be overwhelmed with managing a staff of 5, and you won’t be heading towards burnout any longer. The most important thing we can learn as business owners is to take responsibility for what happens within our business. If we are constantly blaming our staff for things not being what we want, we can never change. The quicker we take responsibility, the quicker we turn the problems around.


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